8 : Love, conflict and controversy

 

Another zone of concern lies in the area of conflict and controversy. Love and compassion are at the very heart of the Christian ethos, and those of us who take that call seriously are understandably resistant to the idea of engaging in serious conflict with our neighbors.

We all share a strong desire to communicate the truths and claims of the Gospel in a way that is not controversial or offensive. We must therefore remind ourselves periodically that the Scriptures seem to be populated more by narratives of physical conflict and victory, than by images of harmony and peaceful dialogue. God’s Kingdom, whether in the pages of the Judaic narratives or those of the New Testament texts, seems to always have advanced through militant martyrdom and generous shedding of blood, beginning with that of our Saviour. This is perhaps what was on Jesus’ mind when he declared: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” (Matt. 11:12) The very image of God’s historical system as a “kingdom” has conflictive overtones in the Gospel narratives. I am endlessly intrigued by Jesus’ statement: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34.) He expounds on this further by declaring almost gleefully: “For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (vv. 35 and 36) Some may consider this mere biblical hyperbole, but two thousand years of Christian history suggest the literal nature of this pronouncement. At another point in his ministry Jesus declares: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke. 12:49)

I have always been struck by this apparent tension in Jesus’ personality. He who was exquisitely gentle and encouraging toward the weak and oppressed was fierce and to the point toward those who resisted the truth that he embodied. I’d like to suggest that the Church should not seek to be more loving and compassionate than its Master. In fact, we know that love often requires confrontation and fierce resistance to evil. Sometimes we will be forced to combat the evil that lurks, unrecognized and unacknowledged, inside those we love. Like the terrorists of our time, the demonic does not hesitate to install itself in “civilian” areas, forcing us into moral dilemmas that we would much prefer to avoid. Satan will not peacefully abandon territory that he has come to comfortably control without violent confrontation. This is the theological background of Jesus’ declaration: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man.” (Mk 3:27)

The beginnings of the Church in the book of Acts are rife with rabid gnashings of teeth, jailings, stonings, Church divisions and partings of ways among apostolic leaders. Somehow, I suspect that the Primitive Church which we so seek to imitate was much more comfortable with conflict than most middle-class evangelical Christians in suburban America today. If we are to reestablish the values of the Kingdom of God in a culture that has distanced itself from them in such a fundamental manner as we presently observe, we must give up the idea of doing it peacefully and without scandal. The Enemy will employ every means at his disposal, from rabid resistance and outright attack, to emotional blackmail and claims of victimization on the part of those we want to rescue. A particular resolve will be required, very similar to the one Jesus exercised when he cast out the demons from the Gadarene demoniac despite their pitiful plea not to torment them. (Luke 8:28) We must never revel in a conflictive modality, and must be ever ready to discern the true spirit that animates our confrontative actions (Luke 9:51-56), but at the same time we must never forget that at times God might even chose to harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to provide a proper scenario for the manifestation of His glory and power. (Exodus 7: 3-5)

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